Angela's Ashes

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Alan Parker

REVIEWED: 01-31-00

Frank McCourt may indeed feel that the movie version of Angela's Ashes has captured the events of his memoir just as he remembers them, as the current TV ads proclaim. Still, don't you wonder how McCourt feels, watching two major studios spend millions of bucks to recreate his family's abject misery? There's something faintly obscene about Hollywood simulations of squalor, anyway--behind every pasteboard tenement set, there's a craft-service table larded with goodies and a bottom line to be fed. But it's especially galling in Angela's Ashes, which spends a lot of money to make poverty look like something that happened a long time ago in a country far, far away.

That country, of course, is Ireland, the setting of McCourt's memoir of growing up among devastating circumstances--sickness, starvation, sibling deaths, a father who drank all his earnings and eventually vanished. I'm only a few chapters into the book, but it's an amazing firsthand portrait of hard times--the kind of book that could speak across cultures to anyone in similar straits. The director, Alan Parker, whose heavy mitts delivered both Mississippi Burning and Pink Floyd--The Wall, serves up the story as a succession of anecdotes, linked by an impressively gray, somber look and a solid cast. Robert Carlyle makes canny use of his Full Monty charm as the ne'er-do-well father; Emily Watson plays Angela, Frank's long-suffering mother, who watched the family splinter as times grew less and less bearable.

The cast works hard, but the characters aren't sketched with much depth. Watson in particular is given so little to work with that she's a passive blank at the story's center. And Parker's ponderous, dully respectable treatment loses the vitality of McCourt's narrative voice. That hurts the most. McCourt's gallows humor puts a salve on his childhood's stinging cruelties. When he writes, on the first page, "Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood," the words ring with a survivor's rueful wit. When the same words are spoken as narration in Parker's film, they come off sounding weirdly self-important: The worse the poverty, the more important the movie must be. Particularly since Parker pays more attention to the props of impoverishment--chamber pots, rags, grease-stained papers--than he does to the people.

That's not to say that movies should never deal with poverty--there's a great film called Rosetta now winding across the country that's as harrowing a depiction of being poor as you'll ever see. But it's set in a recognizable present that makes you distinctly uncomfortable. It challenges you to consider living in the same world, whereas Angela's Ashes is a period piece that treats being poor as part of the past--the dank, disease-ridden flats of Limerick Town are as meticulously rendered as the '30s costumes and the horse-drawn carriages. As such, the movie's destined to produce no other feeling in its American audience than complacency; its basic message, reinforced by McCourt's words, is, "Boy, it sucks to be Irish."

I wouldn't feel so cynical about the movie version of Angela's Ashes if it had even the slightest whiff of passion or personal commitment. But the movie doesn't seem to have been made for any other reasons than having a popular literary pedigree and a chance of recouping its cost--a fraction of which could've fed people as bad off as the McCourts in the here and now.

--Jim Ridley

Full Length Reviews
Angela's Ashes
Angela's Ashes

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Angela's Ashes

Other Films by Alan Parker
Midnight Express

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